Hen_Harrier_246The Countryside Alliance’s shooting campaign has circulated the following brief on the Hen Harrier which offers an introduction, the background on the hen harrier and grouse shooting conflict, Defra’s group on hen harriers, brood management and breeding successes. 

INTRODUCTION

The hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) is resident in some 87 countries across the northern hemisphere, and in a range of agricultural habitats. With a global population thought to be around 1,300,000, and a distribution size of 19 million Km2, it has been classified in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species as one of least concern. Its numbers have never been high in Britain, and as its name implies it was in the past a predator of poultry, and not naturally an upland bird. Given that 75% of the world’s remaining heather is found in the UK, it is also not a species that is reliant on that to breed. In 2009 there was a successful nest in a Gloucestershire cornfield.

With a UK population of 646 breeding pairs (617 pairs in the UK, with a further 29 on the Isle of Man), the hen harrier is one of the two red-listed birds of prey in the UK, and poor breeding success, and lack of successful nests on its favored habitat in England of heather moorland, is frequently attributed to illegal persecution on grouse moors. Whilst this can be a factor, there are also many others. Heather moorland managed for grouse shooting accounts for just one fifth of the uplands of England and Wales, and the breeding success of hen harriers on the remaining four fifths has been no better.

Nesting on the ground, the hen harrier is particularly vulnerable to the weather, disturbance, lack of available prey, and predation by avian and mammalian predators. On Skye, where hen harrier breeding success was studied from 2000 – 2012, there were 88 breeding attempts, 47 of which resulted in nest failures. Further evidence and post-mortem examinations showed that between 2009 and 2012, 65% of nest failures had been due to predation by foxes. There are also factors at play that remain unknown, as on the Isle of Man, where the RSPB’s 2010 Hen Harrier Survey found that the population had halved for reasons that remain unexplained. On Orkney, only 34% of territorial females reared chicks between 2011 and 2012, with 66% failing to breed successfully. There are no grouse shooting interests on Skye, Orkney, or the Isle of Man.

THE HEN HARRIER – GROUSE CONFLICT

There is a genuine conflict between hen harriers and grouse moors, which was illustrated during the Joint Raptor Study carried out at Langholm Moor between 1992 and 1997. That study, which measured the impact of uncontrolled hen harriers breeding on a viable grouse moor, saw hen harrier numbers rise from two pairs to 20 pairs in six years, at which point shooting had to be abandoned due to the hen harriers taking over a third of all grouse chicks that hatched. With no grouse shooting, the local culture, economy and employment suffered, and the control of generalist predators by gamekeepers became economically unviable. In 1997, all traditional moorland management ceased.

A subsequent study carried out by the GWCT at Langholm between 1999 and 2006 found that the numbers of golden plover, curlew, red grouse, and skylark were two to three times lower than when the moor had been managed for grouse shooting, and that Lapwings had been virtually lost since keepering stopped. Hen Harrier numbers also went from a high of 20 in 1997, when the moor had been keepered, to only 4 in 2006, due to increasing fox predation, and dwindling food supply. In contrast, the number of carrion crow, a common predator species controlled on most grouse moors because of the eggs and chicks that they take, increased four-fold following the end of keepering. The moor forms part of an EU Natura SPA site, and is now failing to meet its biodiversity targets.

There remains a need to find a way to begin to sustainably rebuild hen harrier populations, and an underlying principle of any way forward or solution should enable the co-existence of hen harrier populations and economically viable driven grouse moors, given the significant importance of the latter to: conservation; the environment; the rural economy; and local communities. More recent evidence from the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (a partnership between the GWCT, Scottish Natural Heritage, Buccleuch Estates, the RSPB and Natural England) has shown that diversionary feeding can reduce predation when harrier numbers are low and their nest easily accessible. This is well accepted by the shooting community. However alone, this new type of management tool has not been shown to increase numbers of young grouse, and that conservation techniques such as brood management will also be required to resolve the conflict.

DEFRA HEN HARRIER SUB-GROUP

In August 2012, Defra officials established the Hen Harrier Sub-Group of the Uplands Stakeholder Forum which included representatives from Natural England, the Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the GWCT, the National Park Authorities – England and the RSPB. That Group has drafted a Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan, the purpose of which is to increase the numbers of hen harriers whilst maintaining a thriving grouse population. The plan consists of 6 component parts:

• Law enforcement, prevention and intelligence – led by a senior police officer.
• Ongoing monitoring of breeding sites and winter roost sites.
• Further research into the movement of hen harriers using satellite tracking.
• Diversionary feeding of hen harriers to reduce predation on grouse chicks.
• Engagement study about reintroducing them across suitable habitat in England
(e.g. translocation of French lowland harriers to our lowlands).
• Trial the temporary movement of hen harrier young to aviaries (also called
‘brood management’) and release to suitable habitat.

BROOD MANAGEMENT

Hen harriers can take significant numbers of grouse to feed their own chicks, and therefore should a harrier build a nest within 10km of another, the harrier chicks in the second nest would be temporarily removed to reduce pressure on the grouse population. Any harrier chicks temporarily removed to aviaries would be released back to suitable habitat once fledged. This has not yet been trialled in the UK but is a tested conservation technique and has been successfully demonstrated, for example in France, where lowland hen harriers nest in cereal crops.

Brood management is an approach that can both boost the hen harrier population, and give moor owners and keepers the confidence to allow hen harriers to settle on driven grouse moors. It is a management tool that is used by the RSPB for other species, and for it to be used on hen harriers is agreed in principle by the RSPB. The issue for them is when it kicks in.

In the Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan, brood management could come into play after the first nest, should there then be a second nest within 10km. The RSPB has stated that it will not support such a scheme until a threshold of nests has first been achieved, regardless of how close to each other they are. This could have a devastating impact on grouse moors. The RSPB has also stated that, because brood management is controversial, there should first be a public consultation before it can be used on hen harriers – despite it being an internationally recognised conservation tool.

There is no logical argument that the Joint Recovery Plan would do anything other than improve the situation for hen harriers and increase the breeding population in England. Objecting to intervention such as brood management is particularly illogical in the light of the successful reintroduction of other species such as the red kite and sea eagle using just such techniques. Blocking the publication of the Plan would suggest that the RSPB is motivated more by a dislike of grouse shooting, than it is by a concern for hen harriers.

HEN HARRIER BREEDING SUCCESS 2014

There were four successful nests in England in 2014, up from 0 in 2013, and a total of 16 chicks fledged. Three of those nests were on driven grouse moors, and the fourth on land where there is a grouse shooting interest. At Langholm there were 12 successful HH nests in 2014 (14 pairs had tried) with 47 chicks, compared to just two nests in 2013. This considerable increase, and the fact that the vast majority of the nests were in the same area of the 25,000 acre moor, clearly demonstrates the importance of having a brood management scheme as part of the Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan.